During the Joseon era, to be young and single was considered strange. No matter how old a male was, unless he was married, he was considered to be nothing more than a boy. Celibacy, especially in men, was abhorred. Marriages between children were not unheard of and, in fact, were encouraged. Often these marriages were political or financial in nature and, naturally enough, were filled with unhappiness and strife.
Women were expected to be subservient to their husbands and were guided by seven commandments that they were expected to follow. They were to be obedient to their husband’s parents, bear sons, avoid stealing, gossiping, committing obscene acts, and displaying jealousy of their husband’s concubines and to not contract malignant diseases such as venereal diseases ― a strange demand considering that if they did contract a venereal disease, it was likely from their husband.
Despite the unhappiness, divorce ― unless the woman failed to keep the commandments ― was out of the question and for an unhappy bride, the death of her husband did not grant her the opportunity of another marriage based upon love but rather doomed her to a life of chastisement and loneliness. Widows were not socially allowed to remarry.
Thus, it is no surprise that fortune tellers were often consulted prior to a marriage. If the fortune teller announced that the young bride-to-be would be widowed at a young age, drastic measures were sometimes taken.
According to Homer Hulbert, an early Korean historian, on the day prior to the wedding, a young boy would be lured into the bride-to-be’s home where he would be forced to take part in a mock wedding. Once the sham ceremony was concluded, the boy was quickly strangled in the belief that his death fulfilled the prophecy of the woman becoming a widow. The boy’s body was then later smuggled out and either buried or left in the open for wild animals and dogs to feed upon. The young bride-to-be was then able to marry the next day rest assured that her own future and marriage were safe.
But not all women were married and for this they were punished ― not only while they were living but also after they had died. Unmarried women in Jeolla Province were sometimes buried in the middle of roads and paths. As one writer described it, “the life of a girl who dies unmarried is an utter and complete failure, a disappointment only; therefore it is to be expected that in the next world her spirit will be restless and revengeful. To prevent this, she is not buried on a hillside among those whose lives have been happy and prosperous, but in the center of the public road, where all passers-by may trample her spirit under their feet and thus keep it in subjection.”